Do livestock animals in factory farms count as slaves? I think so, but many of my friends disagree.
[This post continues a recent discussion that I had on Facebook. That discussion was semi-private, so I'm not going to refer to anyone by name unless they out themselves in the comments below. But much of what I say below is intended as a response to some of the things that some of my Facebook friends have said, most of whom think that livestock animals aren't slaves.]
Consider the following features of livestock animals' lives:
(1) Livestock animals are regarded by their owners as property to be bought and sold.
(2) Livestock animals are never free to leave their owners' farms for the entire duration of their lives.
(3) The range of choices open to livestock animals is much narrower than it could be, and is restricted at their owners' discretion.
(4) Livestock animals are used in ways that they do not endorse and for purposes that they do not endorse.
(5) The owners of livestock animals harm them and exhibit very little (if any) noninstrumental concern for their welfare.
On the one hand, if any class of subjugated human beings were to meet all five of these conditions, we would not hesitate to call those people slaves. Indeed, it would be ridiculous and offensive, I think, to deny that they are slaves.
On the other hand, it does not seem that these conditions are jointly sufficient for slavery. The plants in a gardener's greenhouse could meet all of these conditions, but we do not call them slaves.
Be that as it may, I think the fact that livestock animals meet these conditions provides a relatively strong prima facie case for the view that they are slaves. In the absence of compelling arguments to the contrary, I think we should regard them as slaves. Here are some of the counterarguments I've seen:
(A) A number of people argue that nonhuman animals cannot be slaves because they are not autonomous beings. I have a few things to say about this objection.
First, nonhuman animals are autonomous in certain senses. Nonhuman animals do have desires, are capable of forming intentions and acting on them, are capable of trying, succeeding, failing, etc., and are capable of experiencing various emotions that in humans are importantly involved in the choice-making process (e.g., nonhuman animals can feel dread, can be disappointed or surprised by the way things turn out, can be elated, bemused, nonplussed, irritated, overwhelmed, etc.).
Second, I grant that nonhuman animals are not autonomous in the following sense: they cannot form complex life-plans. But many humans are also unable to form complex life-plans. For example, very young children and people with certain mental disabilities are unable to form complex life-plans, but to me it seems just-plain-obvious that such people can be enslaved.
Third, if you are prepared to bite the bullet and say that it is impossible to enslave anyone who is incapable of forming complex life-plans, then you owe us an explanation of why the ability to form complex life-plans is necessary in order to be a slave. And I know of no plausible such explanation. Here's one possibility: Perhaps you'll say that it is impossible to enslave anyone who is incapable of forming complex life-plans, because slavery essentially involves the frustration of an individual's complex life-plans. In other words, if everything in an individual's life is going exactly as she plans, or if the individual simply has no plans at all, then she is not enslaved. But that seems wrong. Imagine an indoctrinated slave: a person whose sole plan for her life is to be and to remain a slave. It seems like a serious mistake to claim that such a person cannot be a slave.
(B) It might be argued that livestock animals in factory farms are not slaves because a slave is made to do work. If you kidnap someone, for instance, but do not require her to do any work, then you have not thereby enslaved her. According to this view, some form of slave labor is essential for genuine slavery; there are no completely idle slaves.
I don't know whether labor is essential for slavery. But in any case, it seems to me that livestock animals in factory farms do engage in labor in some broad sense. Egg-laying chickens, for example, produce eggs, and this seems like work of some sort. Even in the case of a pig who is required only to eat, breathe, grow, and then be killed and turned into meat, I think there is some sort of work being done; merely enduring the conditions of a factory farm strikes me as a form of work. Consider the case of human beings who are farmed and then used for some purpose (e.g., for organ transplants); I don't think there would be any doubt about whether they are slaves.
(C) Someone might argue that if livestock animals are slaves, then so too are many other classes of animals kept by humans, including companion animals ("pets"). But (the argument continues) it is obviously not the case that companion animals are slaves; therefore, there must be something wrong with the idea that livestock animals are slaves.
To begin with, I think it's an interesting and worrying question whether companion animals count as slaves. I don't think it's obvious that they aren't slaves. But secondly, many companion animals do not meet all of the conditions identified at the top of this post. They do not (or should not) meet the first condition (good humans do not regard animal companions as property) and they do not (or should not) meet the fifth condition (good humans care about the welfare of their animal companions). These facts at least problematize the idea that companion animals are slaves. But again, I think the question of whether they are slaves is open in a worrying way.